29 August 2014

Shopping Psychology and Town Transformation

As an independent shop keeper, it is definitely in my interest to keep up a powerful campaign to encourage people to choose to shop local and independent, it's also in my interests as a human, who needs sustainability, a strong circular economy and ethics, so the people in my community, my family and my friends, can enjoy jobs, stability and a cohesive and supportive community in which to live. Having a viable High Street, that looks good and works well is a part of the formula for a strong community. Independent shops act as little social hubs, where people meet to connect, chat and find out new information, as much as to actually shop.

After having opened two coffee shops, I have observed an interesting phenomenon, that I would not have been able to predict at all before opening those shops. I am certainly learning more about the psychology of shopping, every single day, it's a mind game and I am definitely hooked.

The question is why do newcomers to an area, whether they've been there for decades, or have just moved in, seem to find it easier to first of all, notice a shop, second of all to walk into a shop and third of all become regular customers, passionate supporters and after a time, true friends?

In my Shepton Mallet shop, I see locals choosing to walk all the way up the High Street, shop at Tesco and then walk down again, with heavy bags of shopping, without stopping at one independent shop in our town, without even glancing in any of the pretty and well presented windows.

People do have a choice and that is their choice, even though there is a Friday market which sells better and much cheaper fruit, vegetables, meat, fish and bread, is more fun to shop at and is closer to where they live, than Tesco! It doesn't seem logical to me. So what is the psychology underlying the decision to shop in a large chain where most of your money is siphoned off, away from the local economy, as opposed to shopping local and independent, where studies have shown this creates a stronger local economy for the community, with around 70p in every pound being re-spent in the local community. Bearing this in mind it stuns me when I see independent shop keepers choosing to spend their money in Tesco, especially in this town, where Tesco has too overwhelming a presence.

I suppose part of the problem could be that many locals have seen businesses start up and then fail, they lose their confidence in the viability of the town centre and then give up.

Thinking about it, there's a similar problem, with our shop on Platform 1, Enfield Chase Train station. There had been five or six businesses before us that opened up for at the longest 6 months and then closed down. Local people's perception of the viability of investing their time and money into that business and relying on it for their coffee, has been eroded over the years by consistent closures. Some people, when I get round to having a chat with them, have stood on the platform, every day at the same time for years and years and tell me they didn't even know there was a coffee shop there let alone one that has one several awards, produced a local Fairtrade Directory, appeared on Television several times and in the local papers too! They don't notice the signs, I mean real signs, printed ones, in the ticket hall, along the platform, on the platform and the other signs such as the aroma of coffee, freshly baked cakes and other people holding cups of freshly made coffee! Although one of our long time customers is a partially sighted musician. How on earth did he manage to find us, when we are tucked around the corner of the wall and others that can see, can't see that we are there but he can? Not one to be backwards in coming forward, I asked how he could find us, when plenty of seeing people couldn't! He said he followed the gorgeous smell of coffee and found us. This makes me feel that there is a kind of 'local blindness' where people just do not see the new shops and aren't interested anyway.

So, is the explanation that some people feel open-minded and ready and are actively seeking new experiences and others are focused on their routine, that works well for them and at that time, they do not want to have a new experience, it would be simply too stressful, too challenging, too far outside the comfort zone, however, when they go on holiday, have more time, feel more relaxed, they also feel more like cherishing and enjoying new experiences. Does that maybe explain why newcomers to an area discover our shop easily and feel good about walking in? They are a self-selected band of person who has already proven that they are open to new experiences at this time in their lives, as they have moved from one place to another, tourists and day-trippers have also ear-marked themselves as more open to new experiences and more open to choosing to shop independent.

Just yesterday, in our Shepton Mallet shop, it was near closing time and three very open and friendly people came in, two wanted coffee, the other wanted a cold drink with no added sugars, she loved our Raspberry Ginger Zinger. Whilst waiting, they spotted Agave Nectar and Cashew Nut Butter and bought two lots of each, they bought some cake too. Just as I opened the fridge, to tidy away the milk, I spotted the gorgeous Booja Booja, handmade champagne chocolate  truffles, made with agave nectar, that are gluten-free and dairy-free. I felt I had a duty to tell them about these truffles but on the other hand, didn't want them to feel obliged to buy them. So, I told them about these truffles, which I absolutely adore and start to positively drool if I think about them and it's even worse if I talk about them. I actually had to apologise for drooling. They bought two little boxes of my truffles and saved them to enjoy later. (I call them my truffles because I buy them from myself too, so they are all mine, unless you buy them). I really enjoyed those customers, they were open-minded, receptive and they wanted a great experience. Where did they come from? Were they local? No, they were day trippers, from Bristol and they will be back! Earlier on that day I had another lovely group of people in, relishing coffee and cakes and soaking up a special experience. Where were they from? New Zealand! They thought they wouldn't need a loyalty card because they are not from here, I assured them they would need it, as our coffee is so good and they will want more, even if they think they are driving away, I said they will not be able to go without having more and will have to turn back. Yup, that loyalty card was all used up in one session!

We always ask where people are from, especially in our Shepton Mallet shop, one day I had seven customers in the shop at the same time, I asked where these individual customers were from, they were all from London, like me! We've been in Shepton Mallet for a year now and our customers are a lovely eclectic mix of mainly creatives, thinkers, tourists, people that have moved into the area, day-trippers and other local independent business owners. When we first opened, I imagined that our core customer base would be people born and bred in Shepton Mallet, relieved that another lovely shop would be coming to the High Street and willingly wanting to support it, our customer base is completely different to that. Why? It doesn't make sense when the born and bred locals are the loudest in complaining about the High Street and the newcomers are the most enthusiastic advocates. This isn't the case in just Shepton Mallet, a facebook discussion reveals that some born and bred locals in the Frome area choose to take a bus to Trowbridge to shop, rather than go to the local independents, or even the chains. It is reported that they perceive the High Street as being unable to fulfil their needs. Yet other people travel from other places to enjoy their High Street.

So, what is going on? Is it the 'grass is always greener' syndrome, where people appreciate far more what they haven't got, than what is right on their doorstep? What is in their town is maybe perceived as run down and not commercialised enough, whereas a newcomer sees the town through interested eyes full of anticipation, looking for the possibilities, noticing the beauty, the potential and the positives.
It's a different mindset.

Is it like blackberry picking where the fruit furthest away looks more plump, shiny and juicy than the ones easily in reach? Is that the underlying psychology here? Is it that we always want what we haven't got? Is this just another symptom of a society that is weary and jaded and projects that feeling onto the surrounding environment? Are people fed up and tired and miss the positives happening right under their noses because it's always been bad?

In Enfield, it took me about 3 years of going outside the Enfield shop, chatting to one man in particular that I felt would enjoy our shop, until one day, finally he stepped inside and ordered a coffee! Now, he is one of our faithful and supportive regulars and he loves us and our shop. I have the feeling that if we were a recognisable big brand name like Costa there would be no, or little hesitation in walking in. Is that maybe because of the high levels of consumer trust that Costa have established over the years? Is it the high comfort level of knowing exactly what the environment will be like when you walk in, knowing what the coffee will taste like, knowing that this is a low risk situation, with a high chance that you'll get what you imagined you would get? Having put it like that, I can see how easy it is to walk into a recognisable chain and how difficult and challenging it can be to walk into an independent, after all, your time and money is at risk. Economic times are hard, so you want to lessen the risk and deal with what you know.

It's easy to trust a Tesco or Costa, as they are everywhere, you know more or less what to expect and you don't need to step outside your comfort zone.

I notice that when people walk into either of my shops, they look around and completely get it, within 5 seconds, or I have to say, hello, we are a coffee and health food shop. Holiday makers, creatives, day trippers and other independent business owners are the people that are attracted to walking inside our little havens of coffee and community.

If we had one of these shops on every High Street, people would instantly recognise it and feel very comfortable walking in, as they have walked in to many of these before. It would feel safe and easy for them.
Sometime independent shops close due to illness, family issues, or a holiday. It's a catch 22 situation, where it is perhaps not financially viable to take on staff, so independents are perceived as being unreliable. Now, if you love independent shops and are a strong supporter of the revitalization of the High Street, you take it on the chin and go back when they are open. If you are looking for convenience only, you'll feel fed up and go to a chain that is always open. Which means another customer is lost.

Today, I made the decision, that in the grand scheme of things, it was more important to finish this blog post, than anything else, that's my creative side being unleashed and allowed to breathe. The shop however, is not open because I am at home writing this and just could not stop my flow.

So, for my final questions:
Is it a problem if local people choose to shop somewhere else? Is it necessary for the success of the High Street, to encourage locals to shop there, or would that be like trying to get people that enjoy coffee to enjoy herbal tea, or vice versa?

Is it inherent in human nature to have a stronger ability to see what's good and be more attracted to new ideas when we are outside our usual environment. Could be that we like to hunt, we like to seek, we like to experience and for everyone of us, this only feels like the real thing, if we are not in our usual territory?
Could it be that, going on a shopping trip that is away from your own town is a great way to enjoy a day trip somewhere, for a reason, without feeling guilty for doing it?

As a business woman, I know that it is easier to make more sales to your regular customers than to gain a new customer, it is more cost effective to nurture and reward your current customers, than to attract a new one. So, on that basis, I feel that it is better to build positively on what is seen to be working.

The High Street is undergoing a massive transition at the moment, we need to embrace that transition and work with it, not against it. Maybe a part of that transition is that in the past the High Street was full of essential services and goods and every High Street had the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker. With the internet and retail park revolution, High Streets are now full of services, charity shops, coffee shops, estate agents and so on. These things are physical and can't be done on the internet, or are a unique offering, such as crafts, clothes boutiques records or second-hand shops. So shopping on the High Street is transforming into more of a leisure time, treat yourself type of activity. Rather than day to day essential shopping, although there are some essentials still in place on the luckier High Streets, such as here in Shepton, where we have The Shepton Cobbler and our own Denela's Bakery, which has queues of people out of their door for freshly made sandwiches. We also have the Co-op in Town, the newly established ABC International Foods supermarket and Little Daisy Deli where you can get your food supplies from.
I am really, really proud of Shepton Mallet High Street and the small but effective weekly market and after a year of being here, there are strong signs of regeneration and attraction of investment in the town centre! A new Italian restaurant is opening up soon!

Let's go with the flow, let's dance on the waves of transformation, rather than trying to convince locals to shop on their High Street, let them choose to go elsewhere. The key to future success, is to build on the positivity that is already manifesting, in both Shepton Mallet and Frome, where those High Streets can be held up as examples of having an offering that is so attractive they draw in trade from tourists and regular trade from returning day trippers! That truly is something to celebrate and something to shout about and I feel proud that My Coffee Stop has been able to play even a small part in the ongoing transformation, just by having a shop on the High Street! And now I'd better get myself to work and open up that little shop!
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